In his first fictional feature, Yaron Zilberman explores an interesting dynamic as the Fugue String Quartet faces an existential crisis. They have played over 3,000 performances in their 25 years together. The onset of Parkinson’s disease challenges the cellist, Peter, just as the quartet begins preparing for the new season. His decision to retire exacerbates tensions within the group.
The film centres on Zilberman’s interpretation of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 (Opus 131) as set out by Peter, teaching his class. Beethoven instructed its performers to play the piece, with seven movements instead of the usual four, attacca, i.e. without a pause, leaving the players no chance to retune. Peter says that playing the piece can end up a mess. ‘What are we supposed to do?’ he asks, ‘Stop, or to continuously adjust to each other up to the end, even if we are out of tune?’ The music, performed on the soundtrack by the Brentano String Quartet, functions as a metaphor for the intertwining lives of the quartet’s members.
Second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) wants to alternate with lead violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), a methodical perfectionist. Robert believes his passionate approach makes him a great violinist. He begins to feel that Daniel has controlled the quartet’s development, confronts him about philandering with his wife Juliette, and really hates it when Daniel gets involved with his daughter Alex. Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers another excellent performance.
Juliette’s mother performed with Peter in a quartet before she died. His quartet broke up thereafter. Juliette (Catherine Keener) fears that the Fugue will break up after Peter’s departure. She hopes the drugs will help him and that he can continue. She wants the quartet to remain as it is, and her initial refusal to support her husband Robert strains their marriage. She turns to Daniel for support before discovering Daniel’s dalliance with her daughter. Catherine Keener contributes an understated but effective performance. Her best scenes are those difficult moments when she discovers her husband’s infidelity.
Daniel approached Peter about forming the quartet and shaped its direction. He pours over scores, making copious notes, striving for a performance of perfection. Daniel’s ambition makes his reaction to Peter’s illness seem cold. His priority is finding a replacement. He also agrees to tutor Alex. He falls in love with her. Mark Ivanir holds his own in an ensemble that includes Oscar-winners Walken and Hoffman and Oscar-nominee Catherine Keener.
Walken takes on an atypical role, playing a fatherly figure, the professor who knew his age inevitably meant quitting the quartet. Walken’s best scenes come early in the film, particularly when he learns the bad news, but he later provides the film’s emotional climax, demonstrating his versatility in a sensitive and physically challenging part.
Set in wintry New York, nicely shot by Frederick Elmes, Zilberman’s film plays safe and conservatively. Jogging in Central Park and conversations in cabs and elegant apartments provide the non-descript backdrop to the unfolding melodrama. There is nothing to confront the apparent elitism of classical music and ‘high culture’. Splashing out over $20,000 on a violin raises no eyebrows.
A Late Quartet is an ensemble piece exploring ensemble dynamics, allowing its talented actors to shine at various points throughout the film. With such an accomplished cast, it would be difficult to go wrong, and, performance-wise, this enjoyable film never strikes a bum note.
[ This review first appeared on the Film Ireland website.]
Cindy Gallop says it’s time to open up about sex. I’m going to look at what happens in cinema when filmmakers open their films to real sex. I’m going to examine how scenes of explicit non-simulated sex function in contemporary narrative cinema.
Since the mid 1990s, filmmakers working in various traditions have included scenes of explicit non-simulated sex. These traditions include Dogme ’95 (The Idiots), New French Extremity (Romance, Baise-moi), Anglophone arthouse cinema (The Brown Bunny, 9 Songs, Destricted) and queer film (Shortbus, the films of Bruce LaBruce and Travis D. Mathews).
This body of work will grow this year (2013) with new films featuring such scenes by Lars von Trier (Nymphomaniacs) and Mathews (Interior. Leather Bar), both featuring mainstream Hollywood stars (Shia LaBeouf and James Franco, respectively).
The questions I ask is why these filmmakers choose to include scenes of explicit non-simulated sex and examine how such scenes function within the narrative; how such scenes relate to the dramatic situations within the films; whether the explicitness is necessary; how they affect our understanding of the characters; what are the broader implications of such scenes; how they relate to broader representations of sex and sexuality; whether the filmmakers posit new models for representing sexuality.
These films arguably address the dissonance between mainstream films that represent sex and sexuality through problematic implication, while films traditionally regarded as pornographic detach sexual acts from any meaningful dramatic or emotional context. Non-explicit sex scenes also detach the sex act from its emotional context with consequences that are just as problematic.
Debates on sexual explicitness fall into pro/anti-censorship dichotomy or focus on either homosexual or heterosexual sex. This thesis acknowledges these debates, but looks at contemporary works in a way that offers a fresh, fully-rounded and insightful perspective.
The following list is indicative of the films I shall consider.
Anatomie de l’enfer (2004, Catherine Breillat)
Antichrist (2009, Lars von Trier)
Baise-moi (2000, Virginie Despentes & Coralie Trinh Thi)
Bankers (2012, Antonio Da Silva)
The Brown Bunny (2003, Vincent Gallo)
Destricted (2006, Marina Abramović et al)
L’Humanité (1999, Bruno Dumont)
I Want Your Love (2012, Travis D. Mathews)
Idioterne (1998, Lars von Trier)
In Their Room Berlin (2011, Travis D. Mathews)
In Their Room San Francisco (2009, Travis D. Mathews)
Mates (2011, Antonio Da Silva)
9 Songs (2004, Michael Winterbottom)
The Raspberry Reich (2004, Bruce LaBruce)
Romance (1999, Catherine Breillat)
Shortbus (2006, John Cameron Mitchell)
La Vie de Jésus (1997, Bruno Dumont)
This is a list of significant Irish short films with gay themes. I’ve included the full film and trailers where available.
Chaero (1988, Matt Hayes)
Bent Out of Shape (1995, Orla Walsh) (Clip)
Summertime (1995, Eve Morrison)
First Kiss (1996, Linda Cullen)
Dream Kitchen (1999, Barry Dignam)
Chicken (2000, Barry Dignam)
Odd Sock (2000, Colette Cullen) [2 Parts]
A Ferret Called Mickey (2003, Barry Dignam)
Bongo Bong (2007, Ken Wardrop)
Afternoon (2008, Ruaírí MacKenna) (Excerpt only)
James (2008, Connor Clements)
Sinead’s Hand (2009, Marriage Equality promo)
Touched (2010, Christian Kotey)
Hold On Tight (2011, Anna Rodgers) (Trailer)
Stand Up! Don’t Stand for Homophobic Bullying (2011, BelongTo advertisement)
The Arrival (2012, Christian Kotey) (Trailer)
The screwball comedy presented a cultural response to the economic hardship wrought by the Great Depression. Anchored in the battle of the sexes, the genre poked fun at rich people living luxurious lives of leisure. It Happened One Night, Frank Capra’s little triumph for Harry Cohn’s poverty row studio, provided a model, but its differences from subsequent screwball comedies reveal both its greatness and complexity.
Ellie Andrews, a high society banker’s daughter, refuses to eat aboard her father’s boat. He pleads with her to come to her senses. Frustrated, she escapes by jumping into the water and swimming ashore. We later learn that she pawns her watch to get some clothes and purchase a ticket on a night bus to New York. Peter Warne, a reporter fired by his editor over telephone, meets Ellie aboard the bus. A romance burgeons.
It Happened One Night opens with an apparently absurd event, in which a character, who we might expect to behave rationally, acts quite madly. Ellie’s behaviour at the beginning of the film introduces the line of eccentric female characters that characterise the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, though Ellie Andrews seems much more rational than, say, Katharine Hepburn’s Susan Vance in Bringing Up Baby.
The term “screwball comedy” poses problems. For Henderson (1978:12), it is “a term one finds in critical contexts of all sorts. Beneath the common term, however, there is no agreement, neither from critic to critic nor within the work of a single critic.” It Happened One Night differs in many respects to other films traditionally characterised as screwball comedies, but it provides a useful starting point.
Gehring (1983) attempted to define the genre. He located the emergence of screwball comedies within a shift in American humour from a tradition based on a cracker-barrel philosopher figure to one founded on the comic anti-hero. Will Rogers epitomised the former. His films, such as Judge Priest (1934) and Steamboat ’round the Bend (1935), both directed by John Ford, were highly popular before his early death in 1935.
The crackerbarrel philosopher was usually depicted as a very capable, fatherly working man, associated with rural or small-town America; his all-encompassing interests were politics and the good of the country. (Gehring 1983:6)
Gehring correctly suggests that Frank Capra’s films subsequent to It Happened One Night ought not to be considered screwball comedies. His description of the cracker-barrel seems more appropriate when one thinks of Longfellow Deeds or Jefferson Smith.
The new (male) comic anti-hero struggled to come to terms with the increasingly irrational modern world, a world made more manageable, it seems, by female eccentricity. These new films poked fun at the rich and provided an increased role for women just as the Great Depression, and then World War II, made real life more difficult. “Someone is going to evolve a great film out of the Depression,” Frank Capra told Variety‘s Ruth Morris in an interview on February 2nd, 1932, and while he would take a more cracker-barrel approach in his subsequent films, Capra established a model with It Happened One Night.
So, why screwball?
The term ‘screwball’ first appeared in the mid-1930s and referred to an eccentric person. The word probably has ties with such late nineteenth-century colloquial expressions as having a ‘screw loose’ (being crazy) and becoming ‘screwy’ (drunk). Since the mid-1930s ‘screwball’ also has been used in baseball to describe both the eccentric player and ‘any pitched ball that moves in an unusual or unexpected way.’ All of these characteristics describe performers in screwball comedy films: the crazy Carole Lombard, the often drunken William Powell, and the unusual or unexpected movement of Katharine Hepburn. (Gerhing 1983:1)
Gehring describes It Happened One Night as the prototype for screwball. As a model then, it features elements that subsequent films followed and others that they disregarded. But Ellie’s screwball behaviour, jumping off the ship at the beginning, ceases. Gehring (1983:3) focuses on the male comic anti-hero and outlines five key characteristics: his abundant leisure time, his childlike naivete, his life in the city, his apolitical nature, and his frustration. The principal difference between It Happened One Night and subsequent screwball comedies is that these characteristics better describe Ellie, an atypical screwball female character.
As a daughter of a wealthy banker, Ellie is a lady of leisure. She does not work, and the only expectation for her is to marry. Kay (1976:64) alludes to Ellie’s childlike behaviour, calling her “a baby”. Ellie throws her food at her father in a temper tantrum, loses her bus ticket and wants to spend her last pennies on sweets. Ellie is a city girl, spending her time between New York and Miami, not showing any experience in travelling between the cities. She expresses no political views. Her father’s demands, rather than the increasingly irrational modern world, cause her frustration.
Fired by his editor, Peter Warne sees an opportunity to turn things around with the “scoop” that meeting Ellie presents. Writing a news story makes his time with Ellie more like work than leisure. As Gehring observes, Peter is apolitical. He launches into lectures, but his subjects include dunking doughnuts. Rural settings do not make Peter uncomfortable: he uses hay to make a bed for the night and eats raw carrots. Gehring (1983:1-2) acknowledges that Peter Warne is stronger than later became typical in the genre.
The role of women and the battle of the sexes are both important elements of screwball comedies. It Happened One Night complicated both from the beginning. Poague(1976:62) criticised Kay for arguing that Capra’s film “can be seen as an ideological enterprise aimed at oppressing women”. They positioned their arguments within a discussion of screwball comedy that traced a lineage from medieval mystery plays. Poague (1977) later considered It Happened One Night within a generic pattern of comedy by comparing it to Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
From a purely cinematic perspective, It Happened One Night certainly complicates the battle of the sexes and representations of women in Hollywood film. Yes, Ellie’s choice eventually boils down to who she will marry, but the film’s structure challenges traditional approaches to classic Hollywood cinema. It Happened One Night confounds Mulvey’s theory of the gaze. Ellie’s decisions and actions determine the course of the film, and she often controls “the gaze”.
Throughout the film, Peter adjusts his decisions to match what Ellie has already decided. He reacts to Ellie’s determination to get to New York by helping her. She makes the first move to kiss him, and he reacts by going to borrow money from his editor. Ellie decides not to marry Westley. Poague (1976:63) argues that Capra presents a middle course between the independence and isolation that affect both Ellie and Peter: “the marriage of being equals who share common values and common goals.” Gehring (1983:1-2) generalises about the screwball comedy: “The more eccentric partner, invariably the woman, usually manages a victory over the less assertive, easily frustrated male.” It Happened One Night does not stretch that far, but it perhaps marks a beginning.
Several celebrated sequences demonstrate Ellie’s control of the gaze. In the first, Peter erects the “Walls of Jericho”. He begins to undress for bed. The focus is constantly on Peter as he undresses, showing the audiences what Ellie is seeing.
The haystack sequence presents a more complicated example, as the gaze shifts. Peter becomes the subject of Ellie’s gaze as he gathers hay to make a bed for himself. Ellie assumes a passive, receptive pose when Peter gets his coat for her. He becomes dominant in a close-up when they almost kiss. The next shots again frame Peter within Ellie’s gaze as she watches him light a cigarette. She asks him what he’s thinking about. Usually in romantic comedies, female characters think wistfully about their prospective partners. Here, Peter thinks about Ellie. It’s the moment when they both realise their feelings about one another. He expresses frustration, “I’m just wondering what makes dames like you so dizzy!” He kicks the remainder of his makeshift bed into shape, while Ellie looks on. Ellie, as a woman, is perhaps more in tune with the tenderness and irrational romantic feelings that emerge in the sequence, while Peter, in his confusion, tries to settle down for the night.
The final sequence in which Capra complicates the gaze in It Happened One Night is the hitchhiking sequence.
The structure of this sequence is similar to that where Peter undresses. His rambling suggests some specialist knowledge. His speech resembles that of a cracker-barrel philosopher, but the subject is apolitical and trivial. Again, the framing makes Peter the subject of the gaze. His activity is a reaction to Ellie’s determination to get to New York. Finally, Peter’s attempts prove unsuccessful, and Ellie manages to succeed and move the action on where Peter fails. Ellie manages to secure a lift by raising her skirt. She knowingly draws attention to her physicality and becoming the subject of the gaze to get what she wants. While not an eccentric characteristic, the scene represents an element that Gehring identified as defining the screwball comedy: that women are more attuned to solving problems and getting on with life in an irrational modern world.
It Happened One Night was not an overnight sensation. It became more popular on its release to secondary movie houses and became Columbia’s biggest hit. Success at the secondary theatres, where tickets were cheaper, suggests that the film appealed more to working class and rural audiences. Poking fun at the rich, as screwball comedies do, probably appealed more to them than their wealthier compatriots.
Its box office success and record setting Oscar wins ensured that Hollywood would produce more films in the same vain as It Happened One Night. Both Frank Capra and Clark Gable would take different paths, but Claudette Colbert would appear in other screwball comedies such as Midnight and The Palm Beach Story, working in the latter with the genre’s master: Preston Sturges.
Gehring, W.D. (1983) “Screwball Comedy: Defining a Film Genre”, Ball State Monograph, no. 31
Henderson, B. (1978) “Romantic Comedy Today: Semi-Tough or Impossible?”, Film Quarterly, vol. 31 no. 4, pp. 11-23
Poague, L. (1976) “A Short Defense of Screwball Comedy”, Film Quarterly, vol. 20 no. 4, pp. 62-64
Poague, L. (1977) “As You Like It and It Happened One Night: The Generic Pattern of Comedy”, Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 5 no. 4, pp. 346-350
Stables, K. (2010) “Hitch, she said,” Sight & Sound, vol. 20 no. 12, p. 48
An apposite question regarding Kieran Hickey’s films is what possible relevance his work from the late 1970s can have today. Looking at the fashions and hairstyles on display, his characters appear outdated, outmoded and outclassed by today’s standards. But the key to understanding the continuing significance of Hickey’s work rests in his unquestionable perspicacity, his astute observations of clearly defined characters. The themes Hickey explored make his films surprisingly resonant.
Fintan O’Toole, columnist for The Irish Times, posed a question that Hickey’s work actually illuminates:
Is there not some kind of connection between two big aspects of contemporary Ireland: the extraordinary apparatus of repression whose existence we are finally acknowledging; and the sense of powerlessness with which most Irish people have faced the current crisis? (O’Toole 2013)
Hickey’s work explores the “apparatus of repression”. Mr. O’Toole writes in the context of revelations concerning the “coercive confinement” of the Magdalene laundries, the “hard” repression of the state. Hickey examines “softer” aspects of repression. Pettit’s commentary on Irish First Wave cinema are pertinent:
This new Irish cinema did not revere its national history nor its traditional institutions, like the Catholic Church, marriage and the family, all of which were scrutinised on the screen. The latter institutions were seen less as bulwarks of Irish social stability and more as arenas for conflict and questioning. (Pettit 2000:103)
In Exposure, three Dubliners, Dan, Eugene and Oliver, check into a hotel in the west of Ireland. They are not on holiday; they are undertaking a surveying assignment. Caroline, a visitor from the Continent, stays at the hotel. She’s also working, taking photographs for a forthcoming book. Her presence affects the relationships between the three men, as Oliver, the only bachelor, becomes involved with her.
Dan, the eldest of the three, and Eugene are married. Their phone calls home reveal tension in their marriages. Dan’s wife complains. She waited all day for Dan’s phone call and she’s unable to get her son to turn down his music. Eugene, having recently become a father, finds it difficult to be away from his wife, who seems happy to have her mother’s support. During a drunken exchange, he admits to Dan that he’s lonely. Dan rebuffs Eugene’s cri de coeur, exclaiming that he’s been lonely for 23 years.
Hickey collaborated with Philip Davison on his first two features, and both scripts observe Dubliners struggle with marriage. Exposure, in particular, constructs marriage as an ordinary expectation that Catholic society demands. They achieve this in quite ways that are cinematic, engaging and entertaining.
Mrs. Sinnott, the hotel’s owner, snoops. During the sequences in which the men are on the phone, Hickey inserts short shots of Mrs. Sinnott listening in on their conversations. Being the hotel owner, Mrs. Sinnott functions as a figure of authority; being a woman of a certain age, Mrs. Sinnott also acts as a figure of tradition. Hickey’s construction, while amusing, creates a sense of pervasive policing of the men’s relationships by tradition and authority.
Caroline reveals that she is a divorcee. Mrs. Sinnott’s shock and obvious disapproval when she learns of Caroline’s status also confirms her expectation of marriage. Her disapproval becomes apparent when she grumbles about Caroline and Oliver having dinner at a local restaurant when she has already prepared some. Again, Hickey exposes social expectations through humour.
Dan expresses surprise to find she’s single and immediately suggests that she should settle down with an Irishman. His assumption, like Mrs. Sinnott’s, is that people should marry. Dan, as the men’s boss, also functions as a figure of authority. When the trio propose to go on a picnic with Caroline, Dan reminds them that they must first attend Mass before they do so. Again, Dan functions as a figure of tradition and polices their actions, making sure his young colleagues conform to Catholic traditions.
The title “exposure” obviously works on two levels: Caroline’s photography and, more interestingly, the film’s exposure of tensions within marriage as a middle class institution. The ways Hickey’s satire remain relevant today is his complex look at marriage. He is not presenting an ideal of happiness and satisfaction. He looks at how social expectations in an Ireland where divorce was then not permitted left people in miserable relationships, feeling isolated and despondent.
Eugene, recently a father, finds that his marriage lacks passion. He also feels inadequate because his wife can rely on his mother-in-law for support. He finds his role as father and husband alienating. Dan, on the other hand, must also police his family. His wife complains about his absence and wasting her time waiting for him, but she also says she cannot discipline her son, who plays his music records loudly. Marriage and family life are not making either man happy, though that is what is expected of them.
The system managed to make families in many cases the agents of harm to their own members. It is truly terrible when the secret police come and take you away to lock you up for some unknown crime. It is far, far worse, when your own mother and father play the role of the secret police. (O’Toole 2013)
Mr. O’Toole anchored his criticisms of family within the system that led to the confinement of vulnerable women in the Magdalene laundries. This aspect represents apparatus of “hard” repression that reinforced conservative Catholic nationalist beliefs. Hickey’s deft satire exposes marriage as form of “soft” repression in the 1970s. His work represents a strand of Irish culture that challenged the passiveness to which Mr. O’Toole objects. Hickey’s approach, along with that of the other pioneers of the First Wave, provide an admirable model for Ireland’s contemporary film-makers.
O’Toole, F. (2013) “Repression shaped our passive society“, The Irish Times, 26 Feb 2013
Pettit, L. (2000) Screening Ireland: Film and Television Representation (Manchester: Manchester University Press)
The tribute to director Kieran Hickey at the Irish Film Institute was a highlight of the 2013 Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. The programme included this remarkable director’s four fictional features: Exposure (1978), Criminal Conversation (1980), Attracta (1983) and The Rockingham Shoot (1987). A full exploration of Hickey’s work must include consideration of his short films and documentaries, which, like his fictional films, are not easily accessible.
Kieran Hickey (1936-1993) was born in Dublin. He was one of the few Irish writer-directors of his generation to study film formally, having attended at the London Film School. He began his career in documentaries, some sponsored by state agencies, working with his regular collaborators, cameraman Sean Corcoran and editor J. Patrick Duffner. Hickey also produced films about Jonathan Swift and James Joyce. He was a member of Aosdána. He won awards at film festivals in Melbourne, Locarno and Alghero, and he represented Ireland at the 1969 Paris Biennale.
Hickey’s experience with documentary is significant. Indigenous film-making in Ireland has always been troubled. Film-makers struggle to find funding and resources. Hickey conveyed “a sense of a profusion of talent that was starved of funds and lacked coherent, sustained development” in his retrospective film Short Story: Irish Cinema, 1945-58. (Pettit 2000:72) Hickey argued that dramatic reconstructions within documentaries such as A Nation Once Again (1946, Brendan Stafford) provided crew and actors with their only opportunity to practise fiction filmmaking techniques. (Barton 2004:67-68)
Gael-Linn was set up in 1953 to promote the Irish language. It commissioned George Morrison to film two documentaries, Mise Éire and Saoirse?, about the 1916 Rising, the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War. Rockett (1988:93-94) criticised Hickey’s film for omitting reference to Gael-Linn. However, O’Brien (2004:109) believes the positive reception of Mise Éire (1959, George Morrison) led to Gael-Linn continuing their sponsorship of the documentaries that inspired film-makers such as Louis Marcus and Kieran Hickey.
Hickey filmed two notable documentaries based on the works of photographer Robert French that comprise the Lawrence Collection in the National Library of Ireland. Faithful Departed (1967) featured actor Jack MacGowran reading extracts from Joyce’s Ulysses, as Hickey attempted to give a sense of time, place and people in 1904. He traced Joyce’s early life until his meeting with Nora Barnacle. For the film’s music, Hickey drew on songs Joyce referred to in the novel.
Though not uninteresting in its attempts to give a sense of context for the appreciation of Joyce’s Dublin through reference to important world events in 1904 and some nods to social conditions, the film was still quite touristic. It was notable however for its elegance and economy, and for introducing the talents of director Kieran Hickey. (O’Brien 2004:152)
Hickey earned an award from the Council of Europe for this work. He expanded on it in The Light of Other Days (1971), using French’s photographs to illustrate a social history of Ireland following Parnell’s death in 1891 through the early decades of the 20th century.
O’Brien (2004:181) believes that the documentarists of the 1960s failed to engage critically with contemporary Ireland. He cites Peter Lennon’s 1967 work, Rocky Road to Dublin, as being “the only significant voice of opposition raised by Irish non-fiction film for some twenty years”. He says, “It was not a voice heard by the majority of the population.” Lennon’s film argued that cultural nationalism, Gaelic and clerical traditionalism dominated Ireland at the time. Challenging these paternalistic forces underpinned the works of directors such as Hickey as they moved from documentary to fictional shorts and then features. O’Brien notes that “a large number of short fiction films began to emerge which questioned the basis of Irish ‘official’ culture and presented a harsh and unromantic interpretation of Irish life.”
Indigenous fictional feature film production in Ireland was practically non-existent before the 1970s. Film making after the Civil War (1922-1923) meant British and American filmmakers and production companies using Ireland as a cheap location or the setting for romantic documentaries, comedies and dramas such as Man of Aran (1934, Robert Flaherty), The Quiet Man (1952, John Ford) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970, David Lean). Irish Destiny (1926) and The Dawn (1938) were exceptions.
Rockett (1988:128) identifies the 1973 Arts Act as an “important institutional stimulus to artistic change”. The legislation allowed the Arts Council, which had been established in 1951, to provide funding for film. The Arts Council initiated the Film Script Award in 1977, providing funds for Poitín (1978, Bob Quinn) and Exposure (1978, Kieran Hickey). Hickey was among the First Wave of pioneering independent Irish film-makers that also included Bob Quinn, Joe Comerford, Cathal Black and Pat Murphy.
The term ‘First Wave’ Irish cinema generally refers to the work — dating from the mid-1970s to the closure of the first Film Board in 1987 — of a group of film-makers including Joe Comerford, Bob Quinn, Cathal Black, Kieran Hickey and Pat Murphy, who were concerned not only with exploring complex narrative themes but also challenging conventional cinematic forms. Although many of these films have since been written off as experimental or avant-garde and thus of little relevance to what we might now refer to as a national film industry, they marked a significant period in the development of Irish modernity. Their dismissal at thematic level on account of an ‘excessive’ concern with ‘overdone’ topics such as religion, violence, Travellers, national identity and feminism is also problematic and frequently the result of a tendency to equate narratives lacking in universal appeal with some form of regressive nationalism. (Ging 2002:178)
The recent screening of Hickey’s films made apparent his clear, focused style. His films are more accessible than the formal experimentation and Brechtian approaches of his First Wave contemporaries. He uses voice-over only in Attracta. His straightforward approach means his films lack flashy techniques or gimmicks. Sharp composition, framing and cutting complement his excellent sense of pace. None of his shots linger too long. Most shots are static, but his scenes are usually short and frequently arranged in dynamic, efficient sequences, as will become apparent in future posts. Hickey’s economic style exhibits a precise understanding of how he can convey his ideas, and the drama of his narratives, in the best cinematic manner. O’Brien, as noted, described his style as “elegant”, an opinion shared by others:
At first glance, his works seem conventional, and unlike say Bob Quinn or Joe Comerford, he was content to restrict himself to an unobtrusive though elegant shooting style. It is the subject matter of his films that Hickey was remarkable for. (Barton 2004:121)
The subject matter of his films helps divide his work into convenient blocks to look at. Exposure and Criminal Conversation both concern then-contemporary examinations of middle-class relationships, particularly marriage. The main characters are Dubliners, but Exposure features them in a rural setting, while the later film is set in their own homes. Attracta and The Rockingham Shoot concern teachers, though from different religious and political traditions, and the effect of the Troubles.
The next post will look at Exposure and Criminal Conversation.
Barton, R. (2004) Irish National Cinema (London & New York: Routledge)
Ging, D. (2002) “Screening the Green: Cinema under the Celtic Tiger” in Kirby, P., Gibbons, L. & Cronin, M. (eds.) Reinventing Ireland: Culture, Society and the Global Economy (London: Pluto Press) pp. 177-195
O’Brien, H. (2004) The Real Ireland: The Evolution of Ireland in Documentary Film (Manchester: Manchester University Press)
Pettit, L. (2000) Screening Ireland: Film and Television Representation (Manchester: Manchester University Press)
Rockett, K., Gibbons, L. & Hill, J. (1988) Cinema and Ireland (London: Routledge)
Silence provides the unifying theme of Alex Gibney’s provocative documentary concerning child sexual abuse scandals within the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican’s silent response to allegations made by deaf children in a Milwaukee school in the 1960s and 1970s provides a platform from which Gibney begins an elaborate exposé.
Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Pat Kuehn and Arthur Budzinski provide the most affecting elements of the film, as they tell of their harrowing experiences at the hands of Fr Lawrence Murphy. They explain how Fr Murphy singled them out. Their hearing parents could not sign, so they were unable to tell them about what was going on. They say the nuns at the school turned a blind eye. They say Fr Murphy took some of the boys to his lakeside cabin, where he asked the boys to decide among themselves which one of them would sleep next to him in his bed. They describe the disturbing ways in which Fr Murphy abused them and how the priest, who frequently interpreted their signs, enabling communication with their parents, abused his position of trust.
Gibney’s documentary also literally gives the four victims a voice. Instead of providing subtitles, actors Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, John Slattery and Jamey Sheridan provide voiceovers to interpret their signs. This approach amplifies Gibney’s decision to give the victims an opportunity to speak out and be heard about their horrific experiences.
Gibney’s approach to recreation is not so effective. Red back lighting and choices of framing and composition draw more from the horror genre than documentary. A choral arrangement of Barber’s Adagio for Strings and prayers whispered on the soundtrack are also excessive. The victims’ facial expressions and signing hands need little embellishment to convey their horror and anger.
Gibney’s focus turns from the victims to the response of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. He moves from the particulars of the victims at St. John’s School for the Deaf to the general approach the Vatican has taken to cases from the USA and then the world, focusing for some time on the scandals in Ireland, particularly the case of the “singing priest”, Tony Walsh. Given extensive media coverage of such issues in Ireland, Irish viewers may find these aspects familiar, though the context Gibney provides is interesting.
Critics might attack the film for its failure to refer to child sex abuse at a wider level (i.e. that child abuse occurs mostly within families), and that this failure exemplifies media actors again exaggerating the scale and impact of priestly abuse. Taking silence as a thematic concern, Gibney makes clear his specific subject. Silence characterises the Roman Catholic Church’s response.
Gibney invited the Vatican to participate and provide interviews for his work, but all requests were declined, a position that plays into the argument that Gibney makes. The lack of an official response makes balance difficult. He finds plenty of talking heads who have much to report on the evolution of the Vatican’s silence. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk, provided counselling for priests. Patrick J. Wall, a “fixer”, describes treatment centres for paedophiliac priests. Jeff Anderson represents priests’ victims, or “the survivors”.
Gibney’s interviewees outline how the Vatican, including Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, knew, or must have known, how widespread child sexual abuse perpetrated by priests has been. The current Holy Father’s resignation will leave unanswered many questions that the film raises. It appears that Church authorities deliberately adopted an approach of keeping allegations secret, omitted reporting to civil authorities, denied allegations, and moved around priests who their superiors knew to be active paedophiles. They describe funds set aside to settle with alleged victims in return for strict confidentiality agreements. Gibney structures his argument to make the Vatican’s silence appear to continue as policy, as it becomes part of the fabric of his work.
But why didn’t he ask other unofficial commentators to contribute? It also raises an important question that receives little attention. Why do people continue to have such faith in an institution that Gibney characterises as being obsessed with its own power and importance? He features footage of a deaf woman who assists Fr Murphy in his retirement. She questions a victim at Fr Murphy’s home when he comes to demand that the priest hand himself in to the authorities. The footage comes from the victims themselves: Gibney did not seek out people to defend their continuing respect for a powerful institution that refuses to address important questions except on its own terms.
(This review originally appeared on the Film Ireland website.)